Civil War St. Louis

Civil War St. Louis by Gerteis


Louis S. Gerteis

University Press of Kansas

Hardcover, 416 pages, 24 illustrations

published November 2001

Suggested Price: $34.95


 now available for purchase


McIntosh and Lovejoy- an excerpt from "Civil War St. Louis" on the deaths of McIntosh and Lovejoy as part of the pre-war abolition/slavery fights

"Civil War St. Louis"

Reviewed by G. E. Rule

It has been a good run of late for fans of St. Louis during the Civil War. Not since 1900-09, when The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War, The Crisis, The Story of a Border City in the Civil War, and The Struggle for Missouri appeared has its like been seen. Starting in 1990 we have been treated in turn to Damned Yankee (Nathaniel Lyon), The Civil War in St. Louis: A Guided Tour, Lincoln’s Conservative (Frank Blair), and Missouri’s Confederate (Claiborne Jackson). Now, building on both the old works and the new, comes Louis S. Gerteis’ Civil War St. Louis.

Gerteis, professor of history at University Missouri-St. Louis, has created the best single work on the subject yet produced. The breadth of this book is its greatest strength, starting with the lynching of Francis McIntosh in 1836 and ending with Reconstruction in the 1870’s. In between is the expected cast of characters like Thomas Hart Benton, Dred Scott, the Blairs, Gratz Brown, Basil Duke, Nathaniel Lyon, Claiborne Jackson, Franz Sigel, James O. Broadhead, Sterling Price, Joseph W. Tucker, the Fremonts. . . well, you get the picture. The list could continue to impressive lengths, and does so in Prof. Gerteis’ book. Abraham Lincoln isn’t elected president (en passant at that) until page 77.

Of particular pleasure was the inclusion of significant material on lesser-known, but important, figures like J.E.D. Couzins, James E. Yeatman and the Western Sanitary Commission, Rev. John Richard Anderson, and James B. Eads and the river navy. Prof. Gerteis also does an excellent job of weaving the German thread into the Union quilt as seamlessly as it has ever been done.

Other lesser-known topics that receive substantial coverage include the Ladies Union Aid Society, the Freedman's Relief Association, labor unrest in St. Louis, and the battle over the Test Oath of the Drake Constitution. Gerteis also chronicles how the participation of women in the war effort had post-war consequences like strengthening the women's suffrage movement. Topics like these add context to the story and give a much more rounded picture of the era than just another telling of the duel between Frank Blair and Claiborne Jackson. There was a heck of a lot going on in St. Louis, and Gerteis manages to give the reader at least a glimpse at most of it.

All this breadth does come at the occasional cost of a lack of depth, however. Gerteis chooses to let the near-riot (and the plan behind it) at Minute Men headquarters on March 4th, 1861 pass without comment, and foregoes the opportunity to reinforce his excellent telling of the story of the murder of abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy by not including the story of Captain James H. Stokes in the appropriate place. Stokes removed 20,000 arms from the St. Louis arsenal in April 1861 to protect them from secessionists in the city bent on capturing them. When in the dark of night he moved them across the river to Alton, Il, the citizens who helped load them from the steamer onto railcars bound for the interior of the state, as Galusha Anderson in The Story of a Border City During the Civil War related,  “did not forget their own martyred Lovejoy, who, fighting against slavery and for the freedom of the press, poured out his blood on the same spot where they then stood”.

The enthusiast will find spots to argue with Gerteis’ sources. Basil Duke’s assertion that Arthur McCoy died with other leaders of the Minute Men “under the Southern flag” is repeated without challenge. However, since McCoy was famously associated with the James and Youngers well into the 1870’s, one is entitled to wonder just what Basil Duke was up to with that statement. Did he forget? Was he embarrassed about McCoy’s later career and chose to dissemble? Or was he making a political point about The Lost Cause and Reconstruction?

On the other hand, it was particularly heartening to see Gerteis demur from the Frank L. Klement line of thought on Provost Marshal J.P. Sanderson and his 1864 report on the copperhead society OAK (Order of American Knights). Klement spent his entire career in an effort to prove that the copperheads were a misunderstood "loyal opposition", and that characterizations of them as a military threat to the Union were almost wholly the result of unscrupulous Republicans and ambitious officers like Sanderson. There has been an increasing amount of  “Yes, but. . .” going around in historical circles about Klement’s work in recent years. Some day someone is going to take a hearty thwack at Klement, and Missouri is the key.

There are other books that are more complete on this topic or that. For example, Thomas L. Snead’s The Fight for Missouri has yet to be surpassed for examining the politics of secession in Missouri in late 1860 and the first half of 1861. But Snead had 300 pages to cover one year, while Gerteis has 416 pages to cover the better part of 40 years.  The general reader would be hard pressed to find as few as five books combined to cover the entire subject as thoroughly as Louis S. Gerteis has done in his one. If you are a general reader looking for an introduction to one of the most fascinating and under-appreciated subjects of the war, or an enthusiast looking to introduce the subject to someone else, then Civil War St. Louis is in a class by itself.

Civil War St. Louis by Gerteis now available for purchase

Aside from a shared interest in the subject of the Civil War in St. Louis, there is no connection between Professor Gerteis, author of the book "Civil War St. Louis", and the authors/owners of this website, "Civil War St."

©2001 G. E. Rule

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